Social Justice: Challenging the Church to Action
Despite the fact that ecumenical Protestantism, to use the term recommended by historian David A. Hollenger, has lost market share in American culture, churches of this type continue to have a role to play in the market place of ideas. They embody a tradition of speaking boldly to the conscience of the nation and even historians who are unperturbed at the thought that these churches may disappear affirm the contributions they have made in past generations.
Fortunately, there are many ecumenical Protestant churches that continue to work at shaping the heart and mind of America. One example is First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Portland, Oregon. In the late 1800s, this congregation pioneered in developing ministries with Asian and Eastern European communities in the city. Midway through the twentieth century, its pastors and members became leaders in Portland agencies and enterprises that were generating new approaches to justice and humanitarian service.
The congregation was a national leader in the work of settling refugees, especially people forced to flee from Southeast Asia. For many years, the congregation hosted a citywide program focusing upon coaching people in using English as their second language.
The founder of Portland State University, now the largest University in Oregon, was a leader in the congregation, and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, one of the strongest local ecumenical agencies in the nation, was given its distinctive public service character by members of First Christian Church.
Throughout this multi-generation era of public service, the congregation also maintained an active program of education in the issues and structures of contemporary life. It was a strong example of the citizen mode of public presence, to use the typology proposed by David A. Roozen, William McKinney, and Jackson W. Carroll in their book Varieties of Religious Presence: Mission in Public Life.
For two months during the summer of 2012, the congregation is continuing this tradition with an impressive series of forums on the theme “Social Justice: Challenging the Church to Social Action.”
The first session provided a theological introduction to the series by summarizing portions of the Bible that emphasize the importance of the justice and mercy ministries of faith communities. A highlight of the session was a sermon by social gospel pioneer Walter Rauschenbusch, delivered by a member of the congregation dressed in the typical attire of an early twentieth-century preacher.
The rest of the sessions in this series begin with gathering music, welcome, scripture reading, and a prayer from the Walter Rauschenbusch collection published in 1909. The main portion of the session is a presentation on the topic of the day by one or more people who are local experts on that aspect of the city’s life and work. Opportunities for questions and comments are provided.
Each session discusses ways that the congregation and its members can participate directly in action that addresses the issue under discussion.
The topics range widely: Food Insecurity; Perspectives on Our Immigrant Nation; Social Justice and Public Health; Interface of Justice, Art, and Faith; Gang Violence and Intersection of Faith Communities; Homelessness; and Caring for the Earth.
One of the distinctive aspects of this series of forums is that a packet of materials has been prepared for distribution to all who attend. An example is the session on immigration. The guest leader was a Portland attorney, himself an immigrant (at middle school age) to the United States from Indonesia. The packet included a lyrical statement he had composed with the title “What big whales, smart swifts, and ambitious people do (move).
Other items: A statement describing the City of Portland’s “New Portlander Programs,” which formerly had been described as the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs; a six-page essay about a local restaurant that commemorates the dramatic relocation of peoples during World War II; a statement entitled “Biblical Principles and Middle Axioms on Immigration” by Michael Kinnamon, until recently the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches; and an essay reprinted from Sojourners entitled “Evangelical Leaders Announce Immigration Table Launch.”
Also included in the packet was a news release from the Office of the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) urging ministers and members of the denomination to start “faithful conversations on immigration”; a brief outline of current refugee resettlement activities in Oregon; and a summary of resettlement activities led by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.
The final item in the packet was a list of three “immigration related volunteer opportunities and action activities you can get involved in.”
One series of forums, attended by sixty to eighty people per week will not transform the city of Portland. When coupled with similar programs in ecumenical protestant churches across the city, this summer and on through the year into the future, and with actual involvement by congregants and congregations in direct service, this program points the way toward a continuing purpose for churches like this.
Photo of Tim McKennie as Walter Rauschenbusch courtesy of Paul Clendenin and First Christian Church.